No Chance for Escape
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Andrew Stanton, U.S., Disney
John Carter never had a chance. Weeks before the film was released, reports of its impending flameout trickled into trade publications. In several articles, “tracking” figures were discussed by “sources” with little journalistic regard for contextual backing that would allow layman readers to parse their claims; at the same time, the film’s budget and allegedly troubled production history moved to the fore of dialogue. Whispers of the dreaded Ishtar were in the winds. Bear in mind that, at that point, very few, and likely even fewer of those doing the writing on John Carter, had actually seen the film itself. (When blood hits the water, thoughtful, informed analysis generally heads for dry land.) Why anyone would sharpen their knives for Andrew Stanton, the boyishly nerdy, clearly quite imaginative filmmaker who delivered the fables Finding Nemo and Wall*E, for realizing a lifelong cinematic dream (albeit a hugely expensive one) is beyond me. Wouldn’t it be better to root harder for the end of the Michael Bay era?
The nail in the coffin of John Carter’s public perception may well have been Brooks Barnes’s New York Times postmortem (unimaginatively titled “Ishtar on Mars”) that ran on the Sunday of the film’s release, before box office numbers had even been reported in full. Barnes, though working without actual figures at his disposal (the article has since been amended with final tallies, though it omits some of the film’s staggering overseas figures in favor of making its case), seems almost gleeful in his dismantling of what he views as Stanton and Disney’s colossal folly, which offends far less than the false equivalence between box-office success and aesthetic quality that’s craftily laced throughout the article. His quite useless piece of writing is an exemplar of the curious and sad byproduct of the “industry” side of cinema, which all too easily and often co-opts a conversation that should be about art into one of figures, charts, and competition. Who can ever be said to have won art?
Pieces like these also speak to a continued insularity of a certain brand of film reporting, which, like those aforementioned early doomsday predictors, less address the general public than the diminished, but still sadly echoing hordes that regularly churn out box-office-figure stenography and tedious Oscar prognosticating in the guise of journalism. In short: stuff that no one in their right minds (i.e. those existing outside the industry) really wants to read. Call me a hopeless romantic, but the public at large, for all its general and regular diffidence towards the fading art of criticism, still deserves the opportunity to experience it free from needless clutter, should they so desire.
Which bring us to John Carter, a cleanly told piece of unserious pulp storytelling that wants for little more than to entertain, yet never deigns to resort to the tactics of cheap ingratiation (past expiry pop-culture references, underlined catchphrases, flatulence gags, easy cynicism, racism, homophobia, etc.) that are littered throughout most entertainments of this size, as well as Republican presidential debates. This alone should qualify John Carter for a medal of some kind. The setup, a lumpy amalgam of narrative bits cobbled together from several entries of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s early 1900s sci-fi Barsoom series follows John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate solider panning for gold in Arizona, as he finds himself transported to Mars. Unlike the dusty and dry red planet on which today’s space obsessives hope to find evidence of life, Burroughs’s Mars/Barsoom, though indeed dusty and dry, is populated (sparsely) by several warring races. The geopolitics of Barsoom are sketched out in the film’s Willem Dafoe–voiced prologue, but the film deftly jumps from airships battling over the fate of Mars to a rainy U.S. street circa 1881 and the death of our just-met hero, before flashing back a decade earlier to Arizona via a tale in a leather-bound journal (the spark of many a great adventure fiction) John bequeathed to his nephew. It’s a fairly breathless start, one that briskly leaves its audience a half-step behind, fully confident that they’re going to want to catch up.
In an age of hurried, truncated narratives, John Carter reminds one of the pleasures of exposition. John’s travails as a prospector involve a punchily edited series of prison break attempts, a coherently staged old-fashioned shootout, and an honest-to-goodness prairie horse chase. Throughout, we’re teased with glimpses of the man’s character: stubbornness, distrust of authority and causes, innate moral compass, faculty with guns and swords. All standard-issue hero stuff, and this is about as deep as the film’s psychology wants to delve, not that the material demands much more. Of greater importance to John Carter’s success is its ability to regularly up the gee-whiz factor: the horse chase is quite fun, but when John finds himself alone on Mars soon after, and takes his first step, only to find himself flung into the air then quickly crashed to the ground (revealed later as the result of Earth man’s bones interacting with Martian gravity), it’s clear the filmmakers are alive to the possibilities of the world they’re creating. Once John learns to control his movements (the sequence detailing his education showcases more smartly humorous cutting), his newfound ability to leap across vast distances places him in prime position for heroism and provides John Carter with its most graceful visual motif.
Before long, and after much to his chagrin, John finds himself embroiled in the planetary war the Red Martians of peace-loving Helium and the destructive roving city of Zodanga have been waging for eons. He’s drawn in by lovely Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins) who’s on the run from Helium after her father Tados Mors (Ciarán Hinds, lending easy gravitas) promises her hand in marriage to the enemy to end the war. If this all sounds a bit like Star Wars, it should—Burroughs’s work practically invented the genre Lucas would later plunder, and now Stanton, surely reared and well versed in that foundational cinematic space trilogy pillages again in turn. It’s also hard to shake off the feeling John Carter only exists because Disney saw in it the possibility for another immersive, world-making fiction in the record-breaking Avatar vein. The formula is similar: send a fairly average Joe to a far-off land where he’s somehow rendered special, pair him with a lovely princess whose civilization is threatened by war, cue battles and romance. Carter succeeds in creating a Mars that rivals Pandora for detailed rendering, and dispenses with some of Cameron’s drippier, logier tendencies. Stanton even provides, in a midfilm battle scene intercut with flashbacks to Earth which reveal Carter burying his wife and child after the Civil War, one of those bits of compressed, emotionally dense storytelling that Pixar has lately become so expert at.
That the film is full of welcome touches like these doesn’t mean that John Carter isn’t occasionally cornball (though this may well be by design), unevenly performed (the voice work from Samantha Morton and Dafoe as four-limbed Green Martian Tharks is often more compelling than Kitsch’s on-screen persona), and, at times, narratively foreshortened (another fifteen minutes of Barsoom lore might not have hurt). These minor sins are forgivable in the face of a fiction that’s generous with simple pleasures: creative creature design, endlessly vast vistas, a buoyant score that’s instantly familiar and welcoming without lapsing into the derivative. It operates in that similar register of good, clean fun as another former Pixar expat’s recently released first live-action work: Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. John Carter thankfully doesn’t seem compelled to allegorize the present moment. It doesn’t, as in the fictions of Michael Bay, score cheap points by ridiculing minority groups and rhapsodizing patriotic. It features nary an ounce of cynicism. I’ll allow that in my critical dotage I’ve perhaps become more credulous in the face of big canvas movies produced with a modicum of care (my devotion to the Ultima RPG series spinoff Martian Dreams, which mines similar Mars fantasies as Burroughs, might also have softened me here). Yet I couldn’t help but be charmed by the imperfect but winning John Carter, and simultaneously frustrated that all of the old-fashioned joy it attempts to inspire will likely go unexperienced by viewers who’ve been craving just that.